Are you someone who likes to feel in control?
But, the truth is, control is temporary, partial, fleeting.
The world is bigger, wilder, and more spontaneous than anything we can box, package, categorize, or structure.
Every time we face a new situation, something different from what we had planned, or an unexpected turn of events, we must respond fresh, with flexibility and creativity, or we risk disconnecting from the world as it really is.
The greater the desire for control, the more valuable formally seeking out training in being flexible is. And there is no greater training for being flexible than training in improvisation.
The Magic of “Yes, and…”
The number one rule of improv is that you must accept whatever comes your way. Whatever material is presented in a scene or a dance or song must be taken as true for the duration of that piece. When someone makes an offer, puts something out there, the first response is “yes”. For beginning players in a scene, it helps to actually say “yes” as the first spoken response.
The next step is to add new material, the “and” portion. This can be a restriction, an obstacle, or a new direction, but it must be an addition. The power of “and” is that accepting what an other person presents in a scene is that the story can develop; in life, it makes the other person feel validated and heard, which enables them to be more receptive to what you put on the table.
In practice, this can be hugely powerful.
I have young kids who negotiate with me all the time. Often, they are missing a piece of information that makes my position more reasonable than they initially presume. If I use any form of but when I counter them, I get into trouble. They don’t feel like I listen or respect them and they dig their heels in to point out that they are human beings with opinions of their own, which they will defend beyond the point of reason if doing so will preserve their self-esteem. If I can remember to respond to their objection with “yes, and…” before adding the new piece of information, I can often get them join me in trying to solve the initial problem instead of fighting to have me respect them.
Simply accepting what is given is a powerful practice.
See what happens if you find yourself wanting to say “but” in a situation and find the generosity to say “yes, and” instead. What do you notice?
Create a Form or Game
One of InterPlay’s greatest strengths is the simplicity of the physical practices. In InterPlay, we call them “forms” because they are guidelines that shape the practice and give it structure. In practice, these forms are similar to what improvisers in the tradition of Second City, TheatreSports, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and other comedy improv groups call “games.” The forms offer a structure that allows freedom within limits. In InterPlay, the forms range from what can be accomplished with one hand or one breath to forms that require groups of people using their full bodies and voices in operatic storytelling. In comedy improv, the games often have rules like each player can only say three words at a time. From simple to complex and sometimes off into the bizarre, these rules provide a structure.
I rebel against structure all the time, but the truth is, I need it. And I never need it more than when many projects are demanding attention. But, it doesn’t have to be rigid or forced. Today, for instance is a writing day. I am only working on writing. I have several projects that require writing, so I may bounce back and forth among them or put in a few hours on each project or devote all day to one project. But, I am not working on website design, room scheduling, arranging insurance, or making phone calls. Yesterday was a day for my creativity coaching projects. Tomorrow I will focus on making Christmas gifts. It’s not a lot of structure, but it works for me. Within the day, I improvise exactly how the day will go, but within the container I have set for the day.
There is a resource that I keep meaning to investigate about form and schedule. Jeffrey Davis over at Tracking Wonder describes his new eHandbook, The Mind Rooms Guide as a method for shaping time. He asked me to review the book as part of its launch, but it arrived on my desk at a very bad time and I have done nothing more than glance at – sorry, Jeffrey. But, I know Jeffrey’s work on helping creatives from his blog and I am looking forward to digging into it eventually. If you have already read it, please let me know what you thought of it in the comments.
Improvisation is at the heart of creativity. That initial moment when nothing becomes something is at the core of artistic endeavour and of invention, and it is by definition improvisational.
Craft takes that inital something and forms it into an object d’art: a painting, a sculpture, a machine, a tool, a book, or a rehearsed performance.
Writers need craft. We need grammar and vocabulary, paragraphs and structure, tone and style. But we must not lose our connection with that creative moment, that initial spark, our muse. If we are in danger of losing that initial impulse, we can find guidance in the art forms that celebrate the creative moment as a complete thing in itself, improvisational forms.
To set the scene
I discovered Viola Spolin’s work during my theatrical training. Her book, Improvisation for the Theater was a primary text in my directing class and had an enduring impact on the way I work as an actor and as a director. Later, I trained with BATS Improv, where I learned about long form improvisation and the work of Keith Johnstone. I attended a master class with Johnstone that was instrumental in changing my understanding of character relationships in life and in stories.
When I returned to writing fiction a few years ago, the practices and principles of Improv were tools I brought with me.
Wisdom from the World of Improv
- Show Up and Commit: For improvisational performers, the moment of stepping on to the stage and doing something, anything, is an oppurtunity that fear can kill. To make a performance engaging, the actor must step boldly onto the stage and perform as though there is nothing else that she could be doing at that moment. So, too, for writers. The moment we show up at the page can be fraught with fear. But, if we write boldly, with commitment to moving forward, we are creating. We can edit later, but for that first creation, we must simply show up and start writing – something, anything.
- Start Anywhere: There is no correct place to begin. A performer can start with a setting, a gesture, a line of dialogue, an idea. So, too, can a writer. Start with the first thing that comes to mind and commit to that and it will lead the next word.
- Be Obvious: Here, I will simply quote from Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. The parallel to writing should be clear.
“The improviser has to realize that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears….Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some ‘original’ idea because they want to be thought clever…. No two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He’s not making any decisions; he’s not weighing one idea against another. He’s accepting his first thoughts….Striving after originality takes you far away from your true self, and makes your work mediocre.”
- Accept What is Offered: The Improv mantra is “Yes, and….” This is shorthand for accepting what your scene partners give you and incorporating it into your work rather than rejecting it because it didn’t match your ideas of where the scene can go. This principle of “yes, and…” is what writers use when the muse hits them with an idea that pushes them to revise the outline they were following. Orson Scott Card used to tell his writing students that “the best stories often come from the juxtoposition of completely unrelated ideas.” Take those ideas and run with them. Don’t squash them. See where they lead. It might be magical.
- Make Mistakes: If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t risking enough. If you try something different, you’ll probably mess it up a few times. Keep trying. Making mistakes is how we learn. Haven’t tried improvising a song before; you’ll sing a few horrible ones before you find a chorus that works. Haven’t written a sonnet; you’ll probably write some stinkers before you write one you don’t hate. If you aren’t willing to risk mistakes, you won’t grow.
In improvised performance, mistakes invite the audience into the journey more deeply as they worry whether the actors will find their way out of that challenge. Thriller writer Barry Eisler posts errors readers find in his novels on his web site; I am sure that has endeared him to some readers and sent others back to his books looking for mistakes just so they could make meaningful contact with him.
- Status Matters: This is actually a key to characterization. People care about how they look and feel in relationship to one another. Every single interaction between two characters can be played or written as a move in a status game. The basic possible moves are: A tries to increase own status; A tries to decrease B’s status; A tries to increase B’s status – notice that having the power to do that immediately conveys status on A as well; A tries to block B as B tries to increase own status. For melodramatic purposes and for exercises, these can be huge moves. For realism, they must be as small as possible, but they must be there for characters to be believable. Friends agree to play status games with each other and accept defeat graciously; enemies play to win; everybody plays.
- Use Your Craft: Skilled long form performers work as a team to tell a complete story, sometimes hours long. To do this, they draw on their knowledge of story structure, their experience of how to get in and out of scenes, their ability to remember what props and characters were mentioned earlier. The best performances occur when the craft is there but the audience can’t see it, when the craft is buried so deeply in the actors’ performances that it just happens. As writers, we can use this wisdom. Study craft, become consciously aware of all your available tools, practice so often that you can use them without thinking, then tell your story.
For a look at how improv can provide more general advice for life, I suggest Improv Wisdom by Patricia Ryan Madson.
If you have other ideas of how improv can be useful to writers, please share them in the comments.